Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership: A Perspective Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kapila

Afghanistan and India signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement in New Delhi on October 4 2011 which was long overdue but had become a captive of the vagaries of the United States misconceived military reliance on Pakistan as the panacea for solution of all American problems that piled up in Afghanistan. It took the United States the better part of the last decade for the reality to dawn that Pakistan had been double-timing the United States and working at strategic cross-purposes against United States national interests. This aspect stood constantly repeated in the Papers of this Author during the last decade.

Similarly, India took the better part of the last decade in getting over her strategic timidity to assume a more assertive security role in Afghanistan and was content to take refuge behind the façade of exercising ‘soft power’ only, oblivious to the strategic reality that India had legitimate strategic interests in Afghanistan and that the Afghan people looked up to India and not Pakistan to redeem their country from medieval Islamic brutalities that the Pakistan Army, its notorious ISI, and their surrogates like the Taliban etc had subjected Afghanistan too.

Afghanistan - India Relations
Afghanistan - India Relations

Symptomatic of Indian strategic timidity were the views expressed by some India defense analysts in the wake of this Agreement that India would be ill-advised to go in for a strategic outreach for a greater security role in Afghanistan especially when India did not enjoy geographical contiguity with Afghanistan and Pakistan Army stood opposed to any Indian strategic role in Afghanistan. Some went to the extent that if India cannot control her Naxalites how can then India control the Taliban threat. Obviously, the applications of force on these threats are not similar. It is imperative for the Indian strategic community to realize that India cannot aspire to be a regional power or a global player if it is strategically timid in shouldering strategic responsibilities that are attendant on staking one’s claim to being a regional Power or a global player. Further, it needs to be recognized that India’s paramount national security interests and strategic interests cannot be subordinated to the strategic sensitivities of Pakistan or any other major Power.

The Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership Agreement is a historical development for both countries in more ways than one. India stands distinguished in that this is the first Strategic Partnership Agreement that it has signed within her South Asia neighborhood and that too notwithstanding Pakistan Army’s known opposition to such a move. Afghanistan stands distinguished in that its is the first ever Strategic Partnership that it has signed with any country and especially against the backdrop of United States winding down its military presence in Afghanistan by 2014.

Afghanistan and India have enjoyed long historical and civilizational ties which pre-date by centuries the emergence of Pakistan in 1947. The present cementing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement should be viewed in terms of the mutual confidence and trust that both Afghanistan and India repose in each other reinforced by India’s record of being a responsible stake-holder in Afghanistan’s stability and security.

In sharp contrast, Pakistan has been in constant conflict with Afghanistan and has severely destabilized and brutalized the Afghan people through direct and proxy use of its surrogate mercenary organizations. Pakistan over-weighed by its imperial hauteur and grandeur has always conspired to reduce the sovereign state of Afghanistan to Pakistan’s vassalage.

So when it came to the exercise of its strategic options for stability and security of Afghanistan in the years to come, it was logical for Afghanistan as a sovereign state to turn towards India, which all along has acted as a responsible stakeholder and committed to the development of Afghanistan and its stability.

The various facets of the Strategic Partnership Agreement and other economic and development agreement signed in New Delhi stand adequately covered in the media. This Paper will not indulge in repetition of those details but attempt to focus on an analysis of various perspectives that ensue from this strategic development and its implications.

Afghanistan’s Contextual Political and Military Situation: A Strategic Reality Check

Briefly, it needs to be noted that in terms of the political situation, President Karzai continues to be at the helm of affairs despite constant efforts to contrive a regime change in Kabul by Pakistan Army, its intelligence agencies and their surrogates like the Afghan Taliban Shura and the Haqqani group. President Karzai has also politically survived some pronounced hostility from some in the higher echelons of the United States establishment who as Pakistan-apologists demonized him. Afghanistan’s political stability has to be viewed in relative terms to the unstable situation generated there externally’.

Politically, Afghanistan can be said to be not to be threatened and destabilized by any of her regional neighbors other than Pakistan. Afghanistan enjoys good relations with all her neighboring nations except Pakistan.

Militarily, Afghanistan cannot be termed as yet another Vietnam for the United States. Constantly emphasized in my Papers on Afghanistan was the home-truth that the US Military Commanders and US Forces along with NATO Forces were not professionally incompetent or militarily inadequate. If they could not achieve greater military successes it was due to wrong decisions in earlier years of the US establishment according over-emphasis on Pakistan Army’s strategic sensitivities on Afghanistan and the conduct of military operations there.

It was also due to the United States reluctance to expand the Afghan National Army and combatize it on a fast track basis to shoulder increased security responsibilities in a self-reliant mode. The United States establishment soft-pedaled this imperative in deference to Pakistan Army’s sensitivities not to allow a credible Afghan National Army to emerge . Constantly recommended in my Papers on Afghanistan was the imperative that the United States should expand the Afghan National Army to 500,000 strong so that such a credible Afghan military strength could deter unbridled Pakistan Army engineered proxy war onslaughts.

Militarily the situation changed in Afghanistan in US favor when President Obama ordered military forces surges as recommended by US Military Commanders and adoption of war fighting strategies which were less deferential to Pakistan Army sensitivities.

Militarily the United States in declaratory terms has made clear that the United States intends to stay strongly embedded in Afghanistan till 2014 and possibly beyond that date also should the ground military situation so demand. This has a two fold effect on Pakistan Army in that it stands thwarted in generating a Vietnam-like military exit by United States and enabling it to install a Taliban regime in Kabul. Secondly, the United States gets three additional years for ensuring that the Afghan National Army is professionally trained to assume self-reliant security responsibilities.

Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership Agreement Not Possible Without United States Blessings: The Significance

Contextually, this Strategic Partnership cementing could not have emerged without the blessings of the United States. Both Afghanistan and India would have in normal circumstances edged towards such materialization, but seemed to have been held back by United States continued misplaced strategic trust in Pakistan and India’s strategic timidity to transform its ‘soft power’ profile to a combination of ‘soft power’ and ‘hard power’ profile.

The potential significance of this momentous development is manifold. Topping the list is that one could see a trend in the making where the United States and India may have embarked on a path of greater security cooperation and engagement in regional terms where if India is not held back by its doubting strategic Thomases this trend could extend into other regions. It is for nothing that the United States has agreed to sell giant strategic airlift transport aircraft to India and India was ready to buy them for billions of dollars.

Implicit in the United States nod for this Strategic Partnership is the fact that the United States may have already reached a breaking point in its relations with Pakistan and as a follow-up corollary both because of regional and global factors is willing now to concede to India a regional power status in South Asia. If there is a small amount of truth in this then implication arises for the China-Pakistan nexus.

Overall, if the Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership concretizes it will be a great strategic gain for the United States, Afghanistan and India in the long term perspective. However this largely depends on the United States in not reversing gears in the execution of its new strategy in the region.

Indian Army Must Make a Resounding Success of its Security Assistance and Capacity Building of the Afghan National Army

Indian Army has ample experience of peace-keeping, peace-building and reconstruction assistance all over the world under the United Nations flag. Indian Army also has ample experience in training missions for armies all over the world. With long experience in this field and professional expertise in this field, the Indian Army should not be found wanting in this field. It is in the realm of Indian political control of these commitments that the end-objectives need to be clearly envisioned, steadfastly pursued even in the face of grave provocations and control delegated.

Culturally, language-wise and Indian Army ethos it should be easier for the Indian Army to undertake these security commitments as compared to the United States and the West. Indian Army would also have the advantage of utilizing the services of many Afghan Army officers trained at Indian Military Academy.

The Indian Army would have to face the challenges of just three years to bring the Afghan National Army to full combat status and this will have to be done in the face of Taliban attacks and also destabilizing attacks engineered by the Pakistan Army and the ISI.

The Pakistani Factor: Destabilizing Indian Security Assistance Commitments in Afghanistan

The Pakistan Army stands stung grievously by the looming breakdown in United States-Pakistan Army relations and the United States perceived nod for the Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership. In these two developments the Pakistan Army sees the end of its ‘Grand Strategy’ on Afghanistan. But the Pakistan Army long used to having its way by blackmailing the United States and an India supine and powerless to retaliate against Pakistan Army terrorist attacks, is hardly expected to submit tamely to these two developments.

The Pakistan Army and its ISI can be expected to step up Taliban and Haqqani group attacks in Kabul against US and Indian diplomatic presence and against Indian security presence in Afghanistan on training missions with the Afghan National Army. Till 2014 the United States Forces can be expected to shoulder the bigger load to combat Pakistani engineered attacks. It is beyond 2014 that India would have to work out contingency plans to deal independently and effectively with Taliban attacks.

India would also need to work out contingency plans that in the course of this Strategic Partnership its role could be transformed from one of security assistance to peace enforcement or even combat roles as the nucleus of a larger international force under United Nations control should the Afghanistan security is worsened by Pakistan Army engineered proxy war.

Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership Agreement: The China Factor

China has significant strategic and economic stakes in Afghanistan besides the geographical contiguity however limited. South Asia including Afghanistan is a competitive battlefield for competing Chinese and Indian power games. China also would be seriously strategically concerned at the perceived loss of its Pakistani ally to influence and shape events in Kabul, both to serve Pakistani and Chinese strategic interests. Contextually therefore the signing of the Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership Agreement would have had a considerable impact on the Chinese establishment in Beijing.

Such a Partnership which thwarts its Pakistani ally’s strategic designs and brings in India into an expanded security cooperation and assistance role in Afghanistan places Beijing in a serious strategic dilemma.

The dilemma for Beijing would be two fold. China has to decide whether it should covertly encourage and assist Pakistan to enlarge and intensify its proxy war in Afghanistan against the United States and India or should it in light of its substantial economic interests in the mining sector in Afghanistan puts serious brakes on Pakistan’s terrorists attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in that country so that Afghanistan remains stable and in the process China’s economic interests in Afghanistan remain secured.

Or would China adopt a dual-track duplicitous strategy of overtly emphasizing Afghan stability and security while covertly encouraging Pakistan to continue with its destabilization activities and targeting American and Indian interests?

The China Factor in whichever manifestation it occurs in Afghanistan needs to be factored-in in Indian contingency planning.

Concluding Observations

India is uniquely placed to ensure that by effective use of a combination of its ‘soft power’ and ‘hard power’ it can retrieve Afghanistan from the purgatory of relentless conflict that it has been consigned to by Pakistan Army’s proxy war in Afghanistan aimed not only against Afghanistan but also United States and NATO Forces deployed there. For India to succeed two major factors come into play.

India must now have the political will, political endurance and fortitude to demonstrate to the global community and the major global Powers that India has strategically arrived to play its regional and global roles and that the heavy baggage of strategic timidity accumulated in the Non-Alignment years now stands shed by India.

The second factor applies to the United States. The United States having virtually underwritten the Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership Agreement that has been signed this month makes the United States as a vested and crucial stakeholder in ensuring the success of all security initiatives that India is expected to shoulder to ensure that a stable and secure Afghanistan emerges , The United States too in this direction has to shed the heavy baggage that it has accumulated on Pakistan because of lingering Cold War mind-sets in its policy and intelligence establishments.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

One thought on “Afghanistan-India Strategic Partnership: A Perspective Analysis

  • October 13, 2011 at 2:33 am

    This a hate article against pakistan.This is the only conclusion one can make from this short sighted and bigoted tone of its author.

    India cannot “arrive” on the world scene by stepping upon it’s neighbours.

    The role according to the author that India should play is to become the new imperial power of the region. what hypocracy.Afghans should be talking to kashmiris about the role Indian boots have played in their region and then make a decision if Karzai just sold them to another bidder.


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